Equipping the equippers - Word&Way

Equipping the equippers

Call it a buzzword, a euphemism for the emergent movement or a description of profound shifts in ecclesiology, the term "missional" is entrenched in the vocabulary of 21st century Christianity.Although the concept is subject to wide-ranging and at times conflicting definitions, its adherents generally circle around a fierce commitment to God's mission or missio dei, an aggressive engagement with secular society and a determination to contextualize the Christian message in specific cultures.

Theological seminaries are responding to modern challenge by helping students put the pieces together—equipping ministers by helping them make the connection between theology and day-to-day life.

As congregations grope to adapt to the implications of what some call a paradigm shift, the seminaries and divinity schools to whom they traditionally turn for trained ministers have not been far behind.

"Methods of theological education rooted in Christendom systems of coercive power are not designed to equip missional leaders," says JR Rozko, who blogs at lifeasmission.com/blog/ about missional life. "A missional vision of theological education is one rooted in community that emphasizes the formation of Christian character marked by kingdom convictions" and which "seeks to train leaders contextually," he wrote in a recent post. "A missional vision of the church carries with it an inherent need for leaders who serve as cultural pioneers, which means we need a vision of theological education capable of equipping men and women for this task."

Rozko, an administrator at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Chicago, worked closely last year with the American Baptist-related school to develop its doctor of ministry in missional leadership degree. Next fall, Northern will collaborate with the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in suburban Washington, D.C., to offer doctor of ministry degree classes in Virginia.

Northern and Central Baptist Theological Seminary, just outside Kansas City, Mo., are among a handful of theological institutions that have developed degree plans with an intentional missional focus. But few seminaries have been untouched by the move to reshape traditional educational approaches in missional ways.

For many institutions, contextualization and community rootedness are the stackpoles around which changes are made. And driving that change in part is a recognition that Christianity no longer is predominantly a Western religion.

"Most Christians today come from the global South," said Caleb Oladipo, professor of Christian mission and world Christianity at Virginia's Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. "Christianity has been de-Westernized."

That new reality confronts Christians in Europe and North America with a stark choice, Oladipo said.

"The challenge for us is whether we are going to accept the leadership of Christians in the non-Western world to lead the new church that is emerging, or whether we are going to hold onto the old categories," he said.

In response, BTSR's curriculum centers on what Oladipo calls "a fundamental pillar"—a requirement that every student spend a year immersed in an unfamiliar culture, either abroad or in the United States. The seminary supports its Mission Immersion Experience through an endowed fund.

"BTSR takes the paradigm shift seriously enough that it sends its own students to other parts of the world so that they become familiar with what God is doing among those Christians in a totally different culture," Oladipo said.

Logsdon Seminaryat Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene also takes contextualization seriously, said James Stone, the seminary's director of ministry placement and congregational resourcing.

"Our approach is in a globalized context," Stone said. "We recognize we live in a complex and interconnected world, and that it's paramount that students who engage theological education understand the connectivity of the church to their communities, to the larger social and political frameworks, and to the economics of the global marketplace. We strive to give our students that perspective."

But the global context is paired with an emphasis on rootedness in a specific community of faith—where significant practical, theological and spiritual formation occurs for seminary students—and in the social context in which that faith community lives, Stone said.

"The health of both the church and the community define us," he said of Logsdon, noting that four of the seminary's professors have doctorates in ethics. "With that ethical mindset, we are able to help our students understand that the health of the church is important not just in words, but also actions, and a healthy church contributes to a healthy community."

A profound emphasis on that community of faith for developing Christian leaders is essential to a missional approach to theological education, Rozko contended.

"If helping people learn to make decisions, live their lives and find their identity not on their own but in the community of the body of Christ is central to the task of Christian leaders, then their training must take place in that same context," he wrote recently. "This has implications for how we identify potential leaders, how we commit to and support them, the nature and structure of how we train them and for what follows the completion of their training."

George Mason, a Texas pastor who is completing a book on the congregation's role in training clergy, agrees churches play an essential role in the new theological education paradigm.

"Location has a tremendous amount to do with the mode of learning," said Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. "What the seminary can do extremely well, the church cannot do as well—teach things that have more to do with information than formation. … But there are practices of ministry that are best learned in the church. You can learn only so much in theory in class; you can learn so much more by digging it out of direct practice and reflecting on it with colleagues."

Since 2002, Wilshire has maintained a two-year pastoral residency program that has graduated more than a dozen ministers. Funded in part by the Lilly Foundation, Wilshire's program mentors four potential pastors at a time. Each receives a salary plus benefits. The aim to provide confidence and skills necessary to enable the residents to become effective pastors.

But ministerial formation can't be neatly divided between the church and the academy, or practice and theory, said Mason, who serves on the board of directors of the Baptist House at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

"I don't criticize the seminaries in the way that some people do when they claim they're not training students to be ministers," he said. "The churches aren't teaching Greek, are they? You want a learned clergy? Part of that is only what a seminary can do. You want a well-trained capable minister? Some of that is only what a church can do. This is a partnership."